We love our children dearly, and they also make us furious. We may find ourselves angrier at the things our children do, whether they are two or seventeen, than we can remember feeling towards anyone else. And yet we know that forcefully expressing this anger rarely helps a situation. Feelings escalate, until everyone becomes more upset. Not much learning takes place. We tell ourselves over and over not to get mad, but sometimes the feelings well up and we feel helpless to our own explosion. Yet the level of anger we experience is directly related to the depth of our love and concern for our children.
Consider these scenarios:
- A mother is at a restaurant and tells her three year old daughter to stop playing with the orange juice, or it will spill. After the third warning, the daughter looks her mother in the eye and turns the glass upside down, spilling juice all over the table, and onto the floor. In horror and despair the mother lashes out at her daughter.
- A teenager works with his father on an essay for school. When he returns that evening, the father asks when he will get feedback from the teacher. The son reports that he forgot to turn it in, and will therefore get a full grade demotion on his grade. The father gets mad at his son, and the son runs to his room, refusing to come down for dinner.
Most parent advice books underscore that it is not useful to get angry at a child, and they offer advice on how to stay calm. A parent can count to ten; they can remove themselves from the situation; they can tell their child in a composed tone of voice how they feel, or they can write their child a letter. All these are great strategies when they work. But what is a parent to do when they find they can’t access these tools in the middle of the storm?
Here is when it’s useful for a parent to do a little personal self-exploration. The parent can ask themselves, what else am I feeling along with the anger? What did I feel in the split second before the anger came up? Often the response is either fear or sadness. A parent will say, “I feel worried for his future. How will he have friends in the world if he treats other people the way he just treated me?” Or “I feel hurt, as if she doesn’t respect or love me.”
In the incidents above, the mother with the girl who deliberately spilled orange juice may feel hurt that her daughter doesn’t respect her or listen to her. She may also feel scared and out of control. The father may be scared for his son that he won’t succeed in life if he keeps forgetting things and that his son’s future isn’t as bright as he would like it to be.
A big step is recognizing these feelings within yourself. What happens within your own body when you are feeling scared or hurt? How does that co-exist with the anger that you feel as well? Then you can pour yourself a tall, cool drink of reassurance. Children, including teenagers, pass through developmental stages. They go through periods of not listening, testing limits, expressing disrespect and being disorganized. The incidents in the present, though upsetting, are rarely predictive of your child’s future.
In the moment when you feel the anger well up, you can remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible and see if you are escalating into a fearful or hurt train of thoughts. If so, remind yourself that your child is a work in process. Sometimes it helps to think about things they have done that made you proud. Find a way to reassure yourself that your worse fears are not likely. Then, go back into the trenches and do what you have to do to correct the situation.
Your job is to help your child learn from their mistakes. Waiting until tempers are cool will help prevent emotional escalation. You should find a time to “strike when the iron is cool,” to open up a constructive dialogue about your child’s behavior and choices. Sometimes natural or logical consequences will be necessary parts of the learning experience.
If your anger did come out more forcefully than you wish, you can always apologize. “Sorry, son. I over-reacted. Let’s talk about it when we both feel calm.”
If you find it difficult to sort out your own mixed feelings or to keep your anger under control, it can often help to consult a therapist. Remember that many parents experience a similar struggle and that you need not feel alone when facing this challenge.